Some say that dictionaries are descriptive, some say they are prescriptive — but how many say that they are inspirational? Douglas Hulick is one of the (I assume) relatively few in that last category, and he’s here to explain how a chance encounter with one eventually led to his debut fantasy novel Among Thieves. The power of a big book of words and phrases! You must respect it.
Twenty years, and (if you’ll pardon the cliché) I still remember it as if it were yesterday. I was on the way to the check-out of my alma mater’s student union bookstore, a pile of SF and Fantasy novels in my hand, when a single word caught my eye: “Underworld.”
It was on the spine of a thick, hardcover book on the remainder table. I stopped. Underworld? I looked again. Arching above that word were four more: “A Dictionary Of The.”
Well, that sounded, if not promising, then at least interesting. I began flipping through it. To my delight, I discovered it was a book detailing the secret slang and patois of the criminal class throughout history; in short, a dictionary of thieves’ cant. “Someone actually wrote something like this?” I remember thinking. Cool!
I was mesmerized. Some words, like grifter (a short-change swindler) and shiv (n.: knife; v.: to stab), I knew from popular culture and old gangster movies; but other terms, such as tail-drawer (a sword stealer) and Barnard’s Law (a four man short-con involving cards), were new to me. And the book didn’t just define the words; it gave descriptions of the cons and crimes, often in the words of the criminals themselves (even as far back as the 1500s).
The book cost all of eight bucks. It’s possibly the best eight dollars I’ve ever spent.
Not that I knew it at the time, of course. At that point, I figured I’d found a fun book to flip through now and then; something to kill a few minutes when I wasn’t otherwise occupied reading a novel or short story collection or (rarely for me) a text book.
Over time, I seemed to stumble across more books on historical crime and canting. Pamphlets on Elizabethan cony-catching (confidence games and how to supposedly avoid them); books describing the careers of various Thief Takers in London (men paid to find and return stolen goods, who were often criminals themselves); plays fancifully detailing the lives of criminals during the English Restoration; and a primer on the art of the con in early 20th century America. All found their way into my hands.
As I devoured these accounts, I noticed a couple of things: first, there was an informal hierarchy among criminals, and not just in the modern “Godfather” sense. Even in the Renaissance, the type of crime you did determined your place in the pecking order of the criminal underworld. Secondly, some criminals were specific not only about the kinds of crimes they committed, but also about what they called the people who performed them. So, a thief wasn’t just a thief: he was a prigger of prancers (horse thief) or a high pad (highwayman), or a draw latch (burglar). Likewise, a confidence man might be a ring faller or an Abraham man or any other number of monikers, depending on the kind of con they pulled. That isn’t to say one person couldn’t do more than one law (branch of roguery) — it wasn’t as if they were worrying about bad job performance reviews — but some criminals became known for a specific kind of crime, and that label stuck with them.
And the third thing that became clear to me? With all this fodder, I had to write a fantasy novel about criminals, of course.
One thing I knew from the start was that I needed the main character to both be an insider and an outsider to the criminal world at the same time. As an insider, he’d have the knowledge and lingo and finer details of the underworld at his finger tips, ready to share with the reader; and as an outsider, he could act as a guide for the reader, explaining people and practices–and occasionally judging them–without having to step out of character. But how to do that? How do you write a criminal who isn’t a criminal?
My first thought was an outcast, but that didn’t seem right. Too easy. Then I hit on the idea of the 1940s noir private eye: someone wise to the street, but also above it; a character able to comment on and move through that world at the same time. I didn’t want to do a mash-up, but the traditional narrative style of the P.I. genre — close first person — had a lot to recommend it, especially for a less than pristine protagonist. Besides, I like writing in first person.
Okay, I had a voice, but I still needed someone who would make it his business to kick around the underworld, looking for trouble. I considered a couple different criminals before finally settling on a Nose (yes, it’s actual cant, although I tweaked the meaning): someone who spied on other criminals and reported back to his boss, helping keep the organization, if not honest, then at least less crooked. An internal affairs agent for the medieval mob: a man of the underworld who would also be distrusted by its members and kept at a distance. Yes, I could see fun things there.
And so Drothe, my protagonist, was born. Oh, there were other pieces of inspiration, of course; no book is made up of just one idea. My degrees in medieval history certainly had an impact on the world building, just as my time spent practicing Renaissance rapier combat influenced how I handled the combat scenes. But the darker, meatier stuff in Among Thieves — the mystery, the criminal hierarchies, the looming gang war, not to mention the double-dealing and street fights and thieves’ cant — all found their initial spark in a dictionary I was lucky enough to catch out of the corner of my eye over twenty years ago.
Yeah, definitely the best eight dollars I ever spent.
* = The book is properly titled, A Dictionary of the Underworld, by Eric Partridge (Herfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1989)